Saturday, August 8, 2009

Questions and Answers #1

Years ago Allison and Elizabeth presented me a book titled A FATHER'S LEGACY: Your Life Story in Your Own Words, posing numerous questions to be answered in spaces provided within the journal. I started to fill it out, but found my fingers didn't do well on the page sizes, and my penmanship - well, it is not so good. I recently re-discovered that journal, and it occurred to me that this blog page might be a good forum in which to respond to some randomly picked questions.

What was the best advice you ever ignored? There are a lot of potential answers to this question, but one stands above the rest for me. Mrs. Wilkins was my first semester English instructor at Fort Hays State, and had degrees in English and Music. Her husband in the music department must have relayed the "inside dope" to her, for she sagely advised me to forget about music and concentrate on writing - pursue a degree in journalism or creative writing. She admired my direct, no-frills approach to composition. I was flattered, but unwavering about my dedication to music. The following semester I encountered an instructor of a different ilk - one who preferred flowery, grammatically complex Dickinsonian prose, and I became merely another C student. Nonetheless, Mrs. Wilkins' advice had been excellent, and as you bear witness, still not forgotten. Looking back with regrets? No, but sometimes you just kinda wonder what if.........


What did you do in the war, Daddy? I played trombone. Saving the world from Communism in E-flat.

Viet Nam? - No, Spain - for three years during which I not once returned to the states. No combat, then? The most perilous moments I faced were marching a parade in a particularly rough section of Boston where the tubas made great targets for beer can hurlers, and trips to perform in France in 1967 and 68. Oh yes, there was another situation at a festival in Andalusia where celebrating parade watchers were throwing confetti and flower petals which I inhaled while taking a deep breath during the playing of a march. That hardly compares to a foxhole in Nam. (In the photo at left, I'm the trombone player in the far right, marching through an unidentified pueblo in Spain.)

My four years, three months, and thirteen days in uniform impacted my life in numerous ways beyond the mere influence of the military regimen and the exposure to other airmen (no women in bands in the mid-60s) from all over the country. The travel experiences expanded my outlook on life - offering the chance to become acquainted with European lifestyles. I could live there and be happy.

Don't get me wrong, I love the USA and live here by choice, but those years and subsequent visits to Europe have shown me that my country does not have all the answers for the world's problems, no monopoly on truth, love, or beauty. There are wonderful people, smart people, caring people, all over the world. And we (Americans) have a great deal to learn from Europeans and other nationalities about many societal issues, as do they from us. I used to think our edge in productivity made us superior to others, but have seen other peoples less obsessed with productivity and object accumulation, yet living less stressed, more relation-centered and relaxed lives. That has long had an appeal to me.


What was your first job?
Stewart Pitzer, at the Model Food Market in Wellington, gave me my first job other than mowing my grandmother's lawn. My father worked for him for many years. Stew was a wonderfully kind and generous man from whom I learned a lot about helping people in need, even as a businessman.

I was 12 or 13 at the time, and he insisted that I take off for school activities (he was also on the school board), and on summer afternoons just to go swimming and be a kid. My pay was 50 cents an hour for bagging and carrying out groceries as well as with stocking shelves when time permitted. I enjoyed the times when I was permitted to help with the in-home deliveries. Numerous customers called in their orders, and once or twice a day, a panel truck was loaded with heavy steel bins which we carried (usually at a run) into people's homes and set everything out on their kitchen tables. If the customer was elderly, infirm, or not home, we put the milk and eggs in the refrigerator. There was no extra charge for delivery service. What a concept!

One summer I did farm work for a whopping dollar an hour. Big mistake (for the farmer, that is). Early in the summer, I helped put up baled hay, catching the 40
pound bales as they came off the baler, then throwing them up onto the wagon that followed the tractor and baler. That was hard enough, but occasionally we would go through a low spot in the field where the hay was wetter and those 40 pound bales became 60 or 70 pound bales. Ouch. When it came time to put the bales in the barn, my hay fever took over, and they had to send me home. Later in the summer, they tried me on the tractor - a liquid-propane Case similar to that shown at right. That didn't work out too badly for a few days until I found myself in a tight spot, and not comprehending the concept of separate brakes for right and left in my state of panic, I put that huge tractor through a fence and into a drainage ditch before I managed to stop it. End of career in agriculture. I felt bad for the farmer, Mr. Pettigrew, a high school classmate of my mother.

Later in high school, I heard Dickie Byler tell two of my buddies that his uncle Ronnie was looking for a teen boy to help in the family appliance and electrical store. As the three of us walked the short distance downtown to the soda fountain at Chief Drug, I dropped behind the other two, then split off and went to the store and promptly got the job.

My job was to help the appliance
mechanics, and occasionally the electricians, a go-fer in other words. It was not easy work. I helped with delivery and repair of televisions - huge, heavy pieces of furniture with small screens in those days. I was trained to remove the picture tube and guts out of a tv cabinet to bring back to the shop for service. Scariest of all, I was part of the crew that scampered about on roof tops or shinnying up those skinny towers to install the huge antennas needed to bring in the few under-powered (grainy black and white) stations available in our little Kansas town. I still appreciate the people I worked with and for - I wasn't the strongest kid on the block, and not exactly technically inclined, but they were patient and kind, and I learned a lot from them, and I think they eventually got their money's worth.

Did the other two guys get jobs? Yes. They became salesboys at the men's fashion store next door to Chief Drug. While I was climbing ladders or loading washing machines or cleaning out one of the trucks, they stood at the front window of the air conditioned store waving to all the girls who were headed to the soda fountain.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Summers of Childhood - Books and Baseball

In recent weeks, I've seen and heard a lot of references to summer's approach - those lazy carefree days when life is good. No doubt, summer has a good rep, must have a great PR guy. Even as an old retired guy, I look forward to the season - maybe as much as when I was a kid.

Decades ago, a majority of my childhood memories were permanently deleted from my "mental hard drive." My sisters recall far more events than I. There may well be plenty of psycho-babble to explain that, but no matter, it happened. Nonetheless, I've been reflecting on those summer days growing up in the 1950s that are still indelibly stamped in my memory. This, then is a glimpse into what life was like in those days, a counterpoint to what you may have seen on "Leave It to Beaver," "Ozzie and Harriet," or "Life with Father."

Kansas weather was in a high heat and humidity cycle during the 50s, and that influenced the way I spent my days and nights. We had no air conditioning as it is known today (few families did) - just a window "swamp cooler" that actually added moisture to the suffocating dampness in the air. And - it didn't cool off much at night. I'd lay awake at night next to the open windows hoping for a breeze to blow across my sweaty little body.

Reading was my single favorite summer activity. I devoured books. Several mornings a week, I would ride my classic, fat-wheeled bicycle (no gears, no hand brakes) downtown to the public library, one of those grand Carnegie Libraries familiar to small towns. Safe? Sure. Even as a kid, there was no danger in riding my bike to the library as long as I avoided the noontime "traffic." Fortunately, my bike had a fairly substantial wire basket, as I usually carried quite a few books each way. Backpacks were a long ways off in the future, except for the olive-drab, World War I army surplus models that Boy Scouts used on outings.

My favorite reading matter? I read a lot of American history, particularly books dealing with the westward movement and the settling of the frontier, an interest maintained to this day as I have learned of the roles played by my ancestors in that great American adventure. On the subject of American adventurers, I somehow learned about early-day travel writer Richard Halliburton and then proceeded to devour everything the Wellington library had by him. Those might be interesting to dig up and re-read, as my love of travel has not waned, and his books were adult level reading. In keeping with my love for baseball, books about the sport caught my attention as well, particularly about the stars of the game. I wonder how many times I read the Jackie Robinson story.

Baseball was a different game in the 50s. Living in a small Kansas town where I did, big league ball was something of a fantasy game and a little boy's heros were indeed larger than life. Televised baseball did not come to our town until late in the decade; and then it was a weekly game on Saturday afternoon, broadcast in grainy black and white with two, perhaps three cameras trying to capture all of the action. Player closeups and replays would not come along for many years.

Most afternoons would find me on the living room floor in front of the fan and next to the Philco radio (similar to the one on the left) listening to the Game of the Day. At this point, my memories don't always jive with information I find on the internet. I recall the games being on the Mutual network and broadcast from a different site each afternoon by Al Helfer and Dizzy Dean. In that era, two-thirds of all games were played during the day. As a kid I was absolutely convinced that the announcers were talking live from the ballpark, then later was informed they were in a studio re-creating the game much as Ronald "Dutch" Reagan had done early in his career. Today I read that Mutual's games were broadcast live from the site, and a rival network - Liberty - recreated games from a studio in Dallas.

Helfer was a pro, and still my ideal play-by-play announcer. He had an authoritative, yet comfortable voice. He knew the game, but he didn't over-burden the listener with trivialities. He simply kept you informed without over-dramatizing the event. Years later he would become the Kansas City Royals' first announcer, and his young sidekick, Hall-of-Famer Denny Matthews, obviously learned some valuable lessons from him.

Dizzy was another story. Ol' Diz was colorful. Pure Country. Entertaining - unless you were an English teacher. He had a story for every occasion. Or, if the game slowed down, you could count on him to break into his rendition of "Wabash Cannonball." I never hear that song without thinking of him. His mis-pronunciations, original expressions, and malapropism became legendary, sort of a Yogi Berra and an Al Ueker all rolled up in an Arkansas farm boy package. Falstaff, the broadcasts' sponsor, seized upon the marketing opportunity to publish a dictionary which put Dizzy Dean expressions into everyday English. The nation's English teachers actually organized in an attempt to get Diz banned from the airwaves, but his popularity prevailed. Said Diz “I ain’t never met anybody that didn’t know what ain’t means”*

Somehow in all this I became a Brooklyn Dodger fan, to the dismay of my father, who grow up following the St. Louis Cardinals, the closest major league team to southeastern Kansas. I don't know why I picked the Dodgers. It might have been connected to multiple readings of "The Jackie Robinson Story." Maybe it was the collection of colorful names: Pee Wee, Duke, Campy, Preacher, Scoonge, etc. Shown in the photo at right are some of my favorites of the Boys of Flatbush: Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider (my favorite), and Carl Furillo (the only member of this group not inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame).

Our little town's daily (except Sunday) newspaper carried complete box scores of all the previous day's games, which I scoured religiously. It was easier for a paper to do that in the early 50s, as there were only 16 teams**, most games were played in the afternoon, and none of those were in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. It wasn't too difficult for a baseball nut such as young Frank to know the lineups of all the teams.

I also had an All-Star Baseball Game, just like the 1962 version shown here. Absolutely nothing electric about it. Imagine that - just player discs which fit over a manual spinner. But I played it for hours and kept stats on the roll ends of cheap butcher paper from my dad's shop.

When did my love for the national game wane? It started when the Dodgers and Giants moved to California. That was about the time I entered junior high school, that time in life when boys start finding lots of other interests. And in the big leagues the number of franchises grew, salaries skyrocketed, increased media exposure made mere mortals of super heroes. In the oft-used terminology of those who separate, "we just grew apart."

Books and Baseball. Did I do anything else? I had some chores, of course - lawn work, especially on those years when we had our own vegetable garden. I enjoyed going to visit my cousin at the old family farmstead, but even as a youngster he had his assigned chores, so he wasn't always available to play. Once in a while, our kindly neighbor Andy Anderson would take me fishing with him, usually at Lake Wellington, occasionally on Slate Creek in the city park. I seldom caught anything, but never cared about that. The city had a nice municipal swimming pool, but that was too far away to walk or ride my bike to until I was in the upper elementary grades.

Still one of the more vivid memories I have is the evening assembly of neighbors. Before air conditioning and television as we know them today, the best entertainment was to gather in front yards. All the neighbors and their kids. A few had lawn chairs, some sat on blankets, and the kids just rolled around in the bermuda grass daring the chiggers to chew on them - which they usually did. Carefree and relaxing. And we were certainly well acquainted with the people on our block, which is one of the things I treasure about our current neighborhood situation in 2009 suburbia.

I guess I've rambled on quite a bit for one whose "hard drive" is faulty. I have digressed a little bit as well. But there it is - such as I remember.


* Quotation, plus other information regarding Dizzy Dean found at:

** The sixteen teams I first remember were:
National League - Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburg Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals;
American League - Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers. Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Browns (very soon after to become the Baltimore Orioles).

Friday, April 17, 2009


I have been addressed many ways during my 65 years. Haven't we all? In my case: Frank, Franklin, Frankie, son, airman, sir, kid, lightning, mister, Mister T., dear, dad, daddy, etc., etc., etc. No need going into the less flattering. There is however, one name that has a sweeter ring to it than all of the others - Grandpa. Ask any grandfather, and he will likely answer the same. There is just something special about hearing a little one call out to Grandpa!

As I do every year during this season, I think a lot about my own Grandfather Hackney, whose passing on Easter 1955 was my first experience with death, possibly the saddest day of my life. This blog, then, will not be about the glories of being a grandfather, but about my memories of Frank Hackney, in hopes those who come after me will know a little more about him, and appreciate his legacy.

I regret my inability to write about my grandfather on the Thompson side, but I know nothing of him, for he died three weeks after I was born, and neither my dad nor his brothers or sisters spoke of him - at least when I was around. The photo at left is one of the few images I have of Roy Thompson. My father, Burl, is the lad on the left in a suit; I believe the girl in front to be my Aunt Ruth and the boy on the right to be Uncle John. The exact date of this photo is unknown, but probably would have been taken in the late 1920s.

Frank Hackney

Frank Silas Hackney was born in 1876 on the Sumner County homestead which had been staked out four years previously by his father Oscar (O.J.), a Civil War vet who left Mount Pulaski, Illinois, to take advantage of inexpensive land in Kansas available to members of the G.A.R. Oscar was able to obtain some rich, prime farm land in the Slate Creek Valley with a home site high above it on a hill. Of the children, Frank became the farmer, allowing brothers and sisters to obtain degrees at the University of Kansas, and to become lawyers, engineers, and businessmen. Oscar and his German-born wife Magdalena moved to nearby Wellington, where he had already served as the city's first postmaster, and then served many years as the "Watchdog of the City Treasury."

Grandpa Hackney married a daughter of John Frank and Sarah Holmes family who lived down the road. The Holmeses were good neighbors and skilled farmers, especially known for their vegetable garden, orchard and outstanding watermelons. And young Maude Elizabeth was quite the fine-looking young lady. Though raised strict, conservative Baptist, Maude joined Frank in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Wellington. My impression was of the two having opposite but still compatible personalities - Grandmother being a stern reflection of her near-fundamentalist upbringing (I don't remember her to smile much or laugh, and we did not play cards on Sunday), while Grandpa was quiet but had a ready, gentle smile and manner that made you feel everything would be alright. The picture at right was taken about the time of their wedding in 1908.

Many times I have heard my mother tell of her father's wisdom, farming skills, and steadfastness while guiding the family through the difficult days of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Without exactly quoting Romans 8:28, she said that Grandpa continually assured the family that all would work out well if they remained faithful to God, and gave their best efforts. Although he had not received the educational opportunities of his brothers, he made himself an intelligent farmer by studying reports from the agriculture college in Manhattan. He was said to be the first in the area to diversify his operations by adding a herd of dairy cattle, first to utilize experimental cultivation techniques to lower the risk of soil erosion, and was later credited for being instrumental in the establishment of the ag extension agency in the county. Tough times? Yes, the Depression was tough for the Hackneys, and they had to all pull together. The children would sell cream and eggs in town before school each day, for example, but they survived.

FS Hackney fam abt 1941

The family photo shown above is my favorite of the Hackney family. Standing left is my mother, Betty, the only surviving member. Next to her is Robert, who ran the farm after Grandpa and Grandma moved to town, next (in uniform) is Phil, a tank commander who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge on January 1, 1945, and the baby of the family, Janey, who recently passed away. Janey attended K-State and received degrees in home economics and journalism, became an accomplished food writer as columnist for one of the major Chicago newspapers. Seated are grandpa and grandma, and Aunt Prue (Prudence) who died of cancer in her mid-30s. I have often been told that I bear a resemblance to my grandfather.

I was the youngest of three grandsons born within a 15 month time span and we were all living nearby at the time. I've been told that these were some of Grandpa Hackney's happiest days, in spite of the daily concerns of having two of the boys' fathers fighting the war in Europe. His pride is easily seen in this photo, taken some time in 1944, at what we called the "Old Savage Place," a farm house where Uncle Bob and his family lived before Grandpa and Grandma moved into town. I'm the little blondie on the left looking for his mother. In the middle is cousin Bob, a pharmacist, and on the right is cousin Billy, who was an anesthesiologist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, prior to his death in 2007.

Many of my fondest memories of times with Grandpa were related to his love of farming. Even after he retired and moved into town, he continued to learn about new practices, methods, equipment and plant varieties, and enjoyed visiting on-the-farm demonstrations of the same. He faithfully continued to visit the livestock sale barns and fairs, especially Wellington's 4-H fair. Cousin Bobby or I were often allowed to join him - a treat I relished.

One final story - On the day prior to his death, Frank Hackney carried on a full day's worth of activities at the family farm and at Union School, the old country school where he had been on the school board. It was as if he was making one last check that everything was in order. Returning to his home found me sound asleep on his sofa - worn out from my first scouting over-nighter. When our ragtag troop had arrived back into town that afternoon, I had been unable to contact anybody to come pick me up at the scoutmaster's house, so walked the few blocks to my grandparents' place and collapsed on the couch where Grandpa found me. Without waking me, he picked me up and put me in his sea foam green 1949 Dodge, took me home and put me to bed. When I awoke on Easter morning, I learned my grandfather was sick and my mother had gone to be with him. I was taking a bath, still thinking we might go to Easter services, when Mother came home to tell us that Grandpa had died. It was now my grandfather's turn to be carried home to rest in the loving arms of his Father.

Frank & Maude Hackney Spring 1943

Friday, April 10, 2009

My "Role" in a Cold War Incident - The Lost Nuclear Bombs of Palomares, Spain

My "role" in a Cold War incident - Palomares, Spain

January, 1966. A US Air Force B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs collides with a KC-135 refueling plane over the Mediterranean Sea near Palomares, Spain. Three bombs land on Spanish soil and are soon found. The fourth is lost. For two and a half months, US sailors, soldiers, and airmen "search" for the lost bomb, until it is found in the sea, exactly where a Spanish shepherd had said it had fallen. Due to the threat of radiation, acres and acres of fine topsoil used to grow tomatoes was bulldozed, loaded into sealed barrels, and shipped to South Carolina for disposal.

I was one of those airmen selected to partake in the "search" as were several other members of my AF Band. We were usually sent to more mountainous regions inland from Palomares. Even at that, several of us discovered pieces of aircraft, I found a piece of seat belt with what appeared to be skin melted into it. I have heard that several members of the US forces were exposed to radiation, including a Colonel Frazier who was highly admired and respected by all of us under his command. Forty years later, in 2006, Reuters reported that higher levels of radiation than normal were still be measured in snails and other wildlife.

I have made special emphasis of the word "search," believing that most of what we were doing was a public relations ploy to show the world how much the US cared and how diligently it was attempting to find the bomb. It may possibly have been an effort to throw off the Soviets from knowing the bomb was in the sea where they might beat our Navy to it. From our camp on the Mediterranean beach, we saw ships patrolling the area which we were told were Russian. Much of the time, our efforts were low-key, but when word got around that the media was headed out, we put on a great show of organization and military efficiency.

Camping on a Mediterranean beach sounds a little like paradise, but this experience was just a "tad short" of that. In the early weeks it was still winter, and although the daytime temperatures could be comfortable, at night it was a freezing cold wind that blew in from the sea. There was little heat available for the tents, but no shortage of blankets, which we continued to pile on. Finally, some smart guy figured out it was more beneficial to put the blankets UNDER you on the cot than over you. He should have received a medal for that. Another bunch of guys who should have received special commendation were the cooks, who fed us well, and managed to eliminate sand from our diet.

The sand was really deep on the beach where we were located, making it difficult for us to securely pitch and guy down the tent. An real army unit (you know - real soldiers) from Germany had already arrived and set up their little village. It was a real treat for these guys to watch a bunch of Air Force office workers and musicians try to get that tent set up in the wind, and we heard the hoots of derision and laughter. That first night, a major wind storm blew in off of the ocean, with sand and equipment and tents flying everywhere. But whose tent stayed secure through the night? Easy call - ours did. God's sense of humor (and justice) at work. That, plus the fact that we had piled about a foot of sand all around the bottom flap of the tent.

The days weren't too unpleasant. We had to layer clothing to ward off the early morning chill, but in later weeks we spent the warm afternoons in t-shirts. Each squad was given an area (grid) to inspect. I liked the times best when we were further away from the coast in more rugged terrain. The sheepherders stoically accepted our 20th century incursion into their timeless lives, but could not understand why we were trampling their fields looking for a bomb that had gone into the ocean. Nor could I.

Occasionally an enterprising local lad would show up with his donkey loaded with wine and some of that indescribably delicious Spanish bread - still warm from the ovens. As mentioned earlier, our officers were lenient, understanding men in this special situation, and allowed us a little wine on duty, with no limits on the bread! And it could never hurt to invest a few pesetas back into the devastated local economy.

The Air Force Band with which I was performing returned to the area before the cleanup operations were ended to do a little bit of musical public relations for the farmers whose lands had been destroyed by contamination. There were still a number of banded barrels left on the beach, ready to be loaded on board the ships at sea for shipment to the US.

Looking for yours truly in the group photo at top? Front row, kneeling, second from right.